With spring training in full swing it is time to talk some baseball. More specifically, some Milwaukee Brewers baseball.
The Brewers have a shot at the playoffs this season if a few things go in their favor. If the following five pieces of the Brewer team puzzle fall into place, we could see Milwaukee playing some October baseball.
1. Ryan Braun: We have heard all the apologies, but now it is time for Braun to go out and show Brewer fans what he can do. There will always be a question of the extent to which steroids affected Braun’s game. The easiest way for Braun to get people to stop talking about the steroid issue is for him to go out and prove that he can play at an all-star level without help from performance enhancing drugs. Even if Braun can play at an 80 percent level from his previous seasons, which would be around 30 home runs and 90 runs batted in, he would be viewed favorably again by Brewer fans and baseball.
2. Staying Healthy: Despite Braun’s suspension last year, the Brewers came back strong the second half of the season, after a dismal first half. But that comeback was limited by the team’s health late in the season. During the year many regulars were on the disabled list for a significant amount of time, including Aramis Ramirez, Tom Gorzalanny, Jim Henderson, Marco Estrada, Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks and Braun. That does not even include Corey Hart and Matt Gamel who missed the entire season because of injuries. Besides the players sustaining actual injuries, some players got worn down at the end of the year, resulting in poor performances. Jean Segura had an outstanding first half, but because he played almost every day, was fatigued at the end of the year, which hurt his production. The Brewers also have to make sure that Jonathan Lucroy does not get too beat behind the plate. To do this they must give him days off, or play him at first base on some occasions.
3. The First Base Position: The days of Corey Hart manning first base are over, but also the days of Yuniesky Betancourt at first are gone too. Last season Milwaukee had started seven different players at first. While who is starting on opening day is not clear, the level of competition for the job is going to be more competitive this spring. At the end of last season, Juan Francisco was steady at the position providing a lot of pop but still while striking out too much. Two candidates were brought in during the off-season to help get production out of the position. Milwaukee brought back former Brewer Lyle Overbay. Do not expect the same production Overbay provided eight years ago with the Crew. His batting average has dropped significantly in the last few seasons, but he still provides solid power and good fielding. Another player the Brewers signed was Mark Reynolds. There is no questioning Reynolds’ power. He has 202 home runs in this seven-year career, but there is his problem with strikeouts. He led the league in strikeouts from 2008 to 2011. If Reynolds can limit the strikeouts, he can be a great piece in the middle of the Brewers lineup. It may not be the best situation, but if one of the first base starting candidates sticks, the lineup will be in a healthier state.
4. Back End of the Bullpen: In recent years, there has not been a more recurring problem for the Brewers than the constant issue of closing out games. Last year the Crew had the sixth most blown saves in Major League Baseball. In the 2012 season Milwaukee led all of baseball with 29 blown saves. Role clarity is in place for the bullpen this year with Jim Henderson returning as closer. Henderson pitched well last year, but sustaining success has eluded him in the past. If he can be a constant force in the ninth inning, minimizing blown saves, that will help the Brewers overcome their previous late inning struggles. With John Axford gone and the return of Francisco Rodriguez, there is some turnover in the bullpen, but it should be for the better. The Brewers traded Norichika Aoki to the Royals for Will Smith, a power lefty that was initially viewed as a starting rotation candidate, but now figures to be one of the top relievers for the Brewers. If Milwaukee can figure out its seventh, eighth and closing relievers, they should have a stable bullpen. A solid bullpen is a necessity in postseason play, so if the Brewers want to experience success they need to have confidence in their late relief.
5. Younger Players Stepping up into Feature Roles: In order for this team to be successful, two specific younger players are going to have to play up to the expectations that were set by their debut’s last year. Scooter Gennett and Khris Davis both have an opportunity to begin the season as Milwaukee’s opening day starters. Davis has the leftfield spot almost all to himself, but Gennett will have to beat out Rickie Weeks for the everyday second baseman job. Gennett has shown that he has the bat of an everyday starter, now he just has to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke and that he can sustain those numbers for an entire season. If Davis can continue his power production, 11 home runs in 136 at bats, he will be a great addition to the starting lineup.
If these five pieces come out alright for the Brewers, they could be looking at a possible trip back to the postseason. There are a lot of questions about this team, but they are all possible strengths.